Going gaga over Google mobile
Google's new Android platform for mobile devices has won over old-school cell phone companies. Fortune's Stephanie N. Mehta asks why.
(Fortune) -- Some of the biggest, most established names in mobile technology are jostling to associate themselves with a company with virtually no track record in the wireless world.
That company, of course, is Google (Charts, Fortune 500), which announced Monday its Android mobile technology platform with a passel of cell-phone heavy hitters, including Motorola (Charts, Fortune 500), Qualcomm, Sprint Nextel (Charts, Fortune 500) and Deutsche Telekom (Charts), parent of wireless operator T-Mobile.
Together, the companies are forming a group called the Open Handset Alliance, which will use Google's Android platform -- Google says it will be available under "one of the most progressive, developer-friendly, open source licenses" -- to develop new services for mobile devices.
Maybe it is Google's $700-plus stock price, or the supremely confident tone Google director of mobile platforms Andy Rubin used to describe how Android would blow away competitors from the likes of Microsoft and Nokia (without actually disclosing any details of how Android works), but old-school telecom CEOs were lining up Monday to sing Google's praises -- and strut their own "open source" credentials.
"We've been one of the most vocal (companies) in developing on open platforms, and this is an accelerator to what we're doing," said Motorola CEO Ed Zander on a call with reporters Monday. "We applaud Andy and Eric" Schmidt, Google's CEO, who also was on the call.
Gushed Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs: "The wireless ecosystem is constantly changing, and we're enabling a new ecosystems of partners like Google and others to go mobile."
Why is Qualcomm (Charts, Fortune 500) embracing Google, when it operates its own competing mobile application development platform, called BREW? Why is handset maker HTC Corp., which has been one of the most aggressive distributors of Microsoft's Windows Mobile operating system, getting into bed with Microsoft's archrival?
The answers have a lot to do with the complex web of companies that make up the wireless industry, and essentially power wireless telephones and networks. Qualcomm, for example, may control an application platform, but its main business is selling cell-phone chips and intellectual property for wireless networks: It benefits immensely from new handset sales and from customers demanding faster phone networks, both of which Google's platform, if successful, will spur.
Similarly, HTC CEO Peter Chou says the handset maker isn't abandoning products with the Microsoft operating system, which it includes in so-called smartphones that target mostly business users. Instead, he says, the Google platform could expand its reach to the consumer market. "We see this as incremental, a new opportunity for us to expand our portfolio," he says.
And for some phone makers, chip suppliers and even some network operators, Google may indeed represent a sort of Switzerland in the wireless industry, says John Jackson an analyst specializing in enabling technologies for Boston-based Yankee Group.
Qualcomm and Motorola, for example, are rivals of handset maker Nokia, which backs the Symbian operating system. Microsoft is sometimes viewed with suspicion in wireless circles because some carriers fear the software company wants to wrest control of the wireless customer. "There's this notion that embracing Microsoft Windows Mobile is, to some extent, letting the wolf in the door," says Jackson.
Google's pitch to operators, equipment makers and others, says Jackson, has been to create a system for building more phones with better applications and links to the Internet. "Google has an agenda, too," Jackson says. "It isn't just obviously counter to what the operators or manufacturers are looking to accomplish."
Google's agenda -- and we're sure this new platform isn't a philanthropic initiative -- certainly was not revealed Monday when it announced Android. "You won't see an ad-driven cell phone based on this platform for some time," Google's Rubin said in response to a question about the company's strategic next steps.
But even if Google is, for now, just trying to make the mobile web a little easier to surf (and therefore, aggregate more users for its search and advertising products), it isn't hard to see how Android could end up being Google on steroids. A Google-powered device with a Google home page and Google map technology means the cell-phone customer is using an awful lot of Google technology, and in turn, sharing a lot of information with Google.
"Carriers are putting important tools in the hands of a competitor," says Dan Olschwang, CEO of JumpTap, which provides "white label" search technology to cell phone operators. Google "gets a better grip on their customers than the carriers."
And indeed, while many big mobile players were jumping on the Google bandwagon this week, two big wireless names were conspicuously absent: AT&T and Verizon (Charts, Fortune 500). Perhaps the biggest wireless phone companies in the United States smell a wolf at the door.